DENVER — The scheduled confirmation hearing Thursday for former Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is expected to be the most contentious Capitol Hill showdown over a cabinet nominee since that of former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton eight years ago.
While Hagel is expected to narrowly win confirmation, many senators on both sides are holding back their formal positions because President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon is a lightning rod to folks on both sides of the political aisle.
Past statements from Hagel on Israel and gay rights have given pause to many Democrats, who would otherwise be in lockstep support of their president’s nomination. Republicans, many of whom don’t consider Hagel to be a real Republican at all, are highlighting the senator’s views on defense spending and his support for open talks with hostile foreign leaders and his opposition to sanctions.
The group Americans for a Strong Defense was formed simply to oppose the Hagel nomination and is in the midst of an all-out public relations push, which includes television advertisements in Colorado and other states pressuring senators to vote no.
Brian Hook, an Assistant Secretary of State under President George W. Bush and a senior adviser to Ambassador Bolton from 2006-2008, is a top board member for the group and leading the charge against Hagel on Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, Hook spoke exclusively with FOX31 Denver about the group’s fight against Hagel.
KDVR: So why this fight? Of all the legislation the president is pushing, why have you decided to dig in and spend all this money to oppose Chuck Hagel?
Hook: As our name suggests, our focus is defense and national security. We’re letting other folks draw attention to some of the social issues. Our focus is where Hagel is on Iran, Israel, Syria, nuclear missiles, missile defense and defense spending. Secretary of Defense is a job that is critically important. The Washington Post, which enthusiastically endorsed Obama, opposes this nomination because it says Hagel is on the fringe on these key issues, well outside the mainstream. When the White House floated out the trial balloon on Hagel, it was clear he didn’t have much support on the left or the right. And it’s disappointing that a president who laments gridlock and partisanship in Washington would send up this nominee, who is so divisive on so many issues, anyway. We just think this is an exceptional case.
KDVR: Bob Woodward wrote this week that Hagel and Obama are very similar in the way they view the world, and perhaps in temprament. What is it about Hagel that is so worrisome?
Hook: The Washington Post has noted that Hagel is actually left of President Obama on some key issues. For example, the president has voted for Iran sanctions. Hagel has opposed them. In fact, Hagel blocked a get-tough bill that would have imposed sanctions on Iran before leaving the Senate in 2008. On modernizing the military, we haven’t seen a Hagel doctrine yet. But we do have [current Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta saying the coming sequester would be devastating to our nation’s defense and to national security; and we have Hagel saying that he thinks the Dept. of Defense is bloated and needs to be pared down. So it troubles us that Hagel is not troubled by the sequester.
KDVR: I know that troubles you for the potential impact on our defense, but is it also concerning that those cuts will impact our economy? Just today, we have a sudden contraction in the quarterly GDP that, in part, is due to a drop-off in defense spending.
Hook: If the sequester goes into effect, that means a half trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. And already a number of big businesses are threatening layoffs. Beyond that, this will really hurt small business because 70 cents of every dollar spent on defense goes to a small business. So, yes, there is a huge impact to our economy. And you just don’t see Hagel taking this all that seriously.
KDVR: The conventional wisdom right now is that, despite all this, Hagel gets through. Do you have any moves left or are you resigned to his eventual confirmation?
Hook: The hearing [Thursday] will be very important. It will give senators an opportunity to look at his entire record. He’s going to face tough questions on a range of defense and national security issues. And it’s telling that Hagel has had to make dozens of house calls to senators to shore up his nomination, but he has a record that’s divisive. And he’s just not the best choice to lead the Pentagon. Normally, Defense Secretaries are confirmed unanimously by the Senate or at least with wide bipartisan support. Leon Panetta was confirmed unanimously. With Hagel, there’s decidedly mixed support on the left, and broad opposition on the right.
KDVR: How difficult has it been to galvanize real public opposition on this nomination? Because it seems like, however contentious or controversial this nomination is, that other issues — gun control and immigration, mainly — are sucking up most of the media oxygen in Washington.
Hook: We’re going to keep trying to get our message out. There certainly is a lot going on, but we’re working to voice real concerns about the impact Hagel’s views would have on our security. Of course there are a number of things that compete for the public’s attention, but if we surrender the field on this, it would send a message that it’s okay to have these positions that are so far outside the mainstream. And it’s not okay.